Hidden figures: The operation that heals the heroes behind the scenes

Operation Healing Forces is a special, nonprofit organization based in the Tampa Bay area, dedicated to supporting the United States Special Operation Forces, the behind-the-scenes, elite men and women from every branch of service, united under Special Operations Command and headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

We’ve all heard of the SOFs—the Navy Seals or the Green Berets—but they range over 10 different divisions with missions in combat, counterterrorism, hostage rescue and humanitarian aid. But it’s easy to forget about them in our daily lives. As Jeff Hudson, executive director of Operation Healing Forces, and former SOF member himself with more than eight deployments, explains, “Most of the missions in SOF are behind the scenes, or in the shadows, so they are completely unknown unless the president or secretary of defense comes on TV to announce some larger success. It’s rare that anything makes the news because it helps protect the many forces out there still at work. Yet those types of operations happen every night, in many hotspots around the world. We all understand [the need for secrecy] but when you get back home and you’ve lost friends or you, or your teammates, have been gravely wounded it seems that everyone on the street is just going about their business and don’t realize that we’re still at war in places, you get in a dark space—a place where you start thinking that people don’t care. It’s not the case. It’s mainly that people just don’t know.”

And most active SOFs are busy preparing for their next mission, unwilling to admit any hardship.

“Through the years, as you serve, you learn how to assume a mask of command,” Hudson says, “You learn how to always keep your game face on because you don’t ever want to disclose something that could bring added scrutiny that could affect your career. A lot of SOF guys, and girls, are very hesitant to admit if they are having certain thoughts or facing issues.”

As Hudson continues, “SOF has a 73.8% return-to-duty percentage after significant injury, much higher than the main forces which are around a 12% return after similar injuries. It speaks to the caliber of the men and women who serve in SOF, but it’s also because we’re not easily replaceable because it takes so many years to grow a seasoned operator.”

So how do you help men and women who are at the height of physical and mental training for combat, accustomed to helping others, to ever think about helping themselves? By helping them reconnect with their loved ones. And that simple idea is how Operation Healing Forces began.

It started with Gary Markel, retired president of Markel and Associates, relaxing on his yacht off the coast of Florida. Markel was watching a documentary about wounded veterans learning how to scuba dive as a rehabilitative experience. And something clicked: that one way to heal emotional wounds is to enjoy positive experiences to build up positive emotions again. Markel started Operation Cruise in 2011, following this simple idea: using his own yacht and money, he invited four SOFs and their spouses to a weeklong therapeutic retreat in the Caribbean. No professional therapists, just four couples with similar experiences to relax, reconnect and form new friendships in a beautiful environment.

Hudson was one of the early participants in Markel’s plan and the two connected after Hudson sent a thank-you on behalf of his group. The two men realized they were both based in the Tampa area and met, then kept in touch. By 2014, Operation Cruise was ready to expand and Hudson stepped in as executive director to launch Operation Healing Forces in 2015, completing five retreats in its initial year.

Markel’s compassionate vision remains at the core of the group’s work.

“Our retreats are all led by a former Special Operations veteran who’s been through either a medical board or retired due to illnesses or injuries,” Hudson says. “It’s kind of like a pack of wolves meeting when the retreat starts. The SOFs do a sniff test and soon realize that their leader has served in the same places and has been through what they’re going through. They realize that they’re not going to be evaluated, or assessed, and it’s really just a time for themselves and their spouses, to meet other couples who are working through similar challenges.”

Hudson has built up the retreat program to, nearly, weekly retreats across the U.S. and the Caribbean, 51 last year and on track for the same this year, despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. In total, Operation Healing Forces have served 758 couples, with close to 1,000 currently on their waiting lists to participate. 

“You can have a Marine Raider and Air Force Special Tactics all at the table from different tribes in the Special Operations community and they just quickly relate to each other, because they’ve been in the same places, faced the same hardships and the same stressors,” Hudson says. In such a relaxed atmosphere, OHF is ready with resources and further help, all while protecting the privacy of the SOF and their families.

“We may not know all the answers,” Hudson says, “but we will do everything we can to help our SOFs find the right resource for whatever it is they are challenged by.” OHF works closely with the Warrior Care Program, a governmental agency that officially supports SOF, also based at MacDill.

As Hudson explains, “One of the most horrible tragedies of all is when an operator endures 10 [to] 15 years of service, finally comes back home, and then all of a sudden, their family implodes. They lose their spouse, or kids, and they’re alone. When they go through all the hardships and separations for our country and then don’t have their family anymore, it’s really a tragedy. The divorce rate for SOFs is the highest of any throughout the military. We’re trying to keep that family unit together for their well-being, for their spouse and for their children.”

Hudson points out, “the spouses are really the unsung heroes of SOFs, and the retreats recognize their silent contributions, keeping the family together over long separations.”

With the success of their retreats, OHF launched a new program in 2019, Immediate Needs. Hudson calls it “the 911 of the SOF community,” a line to quick emotional or financial assistance.

Immediate Needs picks up where the Warrior Care Program stops as a “hand up, not a hand-out,” Hudson says. When a SOF spouse faces eviction after a suicide, waiting for official support to come through or when a child of SOF needs cancer treatments but government assistance doesn’t extend to hotel rooms, or meal expenses, so that the family can be together during hospital stays. When a SOF is severely injured across the world but only two family members are compensated for travel expenses to come to their bedside. In all these recent, real-life cases, Immediate Needs steps in and provides support.

“We’ve completed 1,088 Immediate Needs cases since the launch, helping over 4,311 SOF family members. This year alone, we’ve already supported 106 cases and based on our estimates, and current resources, we will help an additional 522 cases by the end of the year,” Hudson says.

And as Hudson emphasizes, again and again, SOFs need help. With not only the highest divorce rate in the military, they also have the highest suicide and cancer rates, in addition to a special medical condition named after them, Operator’s Syndrome, comprised of various repetitive use injuries or internal complications that arise from the high volume of hormonal imbalances found in SOF veterans. Research indicates that many SOFs lack the essential vitamins and nutrients in their body because of high levels of testosterone, produced over time, with consistent, high-risk activities.

There are many ways to help, from cash or stock donations to hosting an informational house gathering to raise awareness, to giving up your luxury home for a week to host a retreat.

Another truly special aspect of OHF is that 100% of all donations go directly to SOFs, thanks to the generosity of Markel, who along with his brother, Tony, retired vice-chairman of the Markel Corp., and supported by its board of directors, guarantees financing all overhead costs of OHF to free up donations to go directly to the SOF community. Hudson’s army of one, deployed in 2015 with OHF’s debut, has grown to eight dedicated staff, all somehow connected to the SOF community, each helping the Special Operatives men and women who lead the front lines of the country’s defense.

For information about contributing, visit operationhealingforces.org.

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